Anatomy of a Buzz
"You let me know when we've made it," says drummer Josh Garza, a passenger in a van headed for Cleveland, where his band Secret Machines will perform tonight before a cross-country haul to Seattle. He's not talking about arriving at their destination but rather about the feeling of success that can creep up on an unknown band when its flattering press clippings pile up like snowdrifts in the Alps.
Four years ago, Garza and Ben Curtis (guitar, vocals) and his older brother Brandon (keyboards, bass, vocals) left Dallas for Brooklyn, New York, where they struggled to be heard over the din of the big city. Today the Secret Machines are media darlings, with praise scattered not only in music magazines, but in the New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, and other publications that actually have the influence to send readers to record stores.
Now Here is Nowhere is not the sort of album majors usually look forward to marketing. Released in record stores by Warner Bros. Records subsidiary Reprise on May 18, it contains Spiritualized melodies fused with Beach Boys harmonies, and Zeppelin drumming pounding over New Order singing. It's a rock and roll history lesson spread over nine songs encompassing everything from Krautrock to Britpop to prog. It bulges with epic pop songs that sound as good pulsing through the stoner's headphones as they do booming from a car stereo's speakers on a hot summer day.
Secret Machines got lucky, though. Not even two years ago, it appeared as though the band's move to New York might have been ill-advised. Despite some good reviews in the local weeklies -- including the New York Press's proclamation in its December 10, 2002, issue that Secret Machines was the best live band in town -- and a debut EP, September 000, no labels came calling. So they visited Los Angeles for a month. By the end of their stay, their club gigs were crowded with record company flacks eyeing each other.
Perry Watts-Russell, Warners' senior vice president of A&R and a former Capitol Records executive who worked with Radiohead from The Bends through Amnesiac, was tipped off about Secret Machines by one of his old Capitol assistants. "They came onstage and started to play, and I have to say they just blew me away," he recalls. "I was looking around going, 'Wow, do you guys know about these guys? How come I've never heard of them?' I also thought, potentially negatively, öOh, my God, how would you capture this on record?' But I tend, perhaps somewhat foolishly, not to necessarily think of the commercial potential as the first thought when I come across something I like."
Secret Machines signed a recording deal with Warners in July of 2003. Bob Ezrin, who had produced Pink Floyd (The Wall) and Lou Reed (Berlin) and Peter Gabriel's first solo album, heard some music and offered his services, but Watts-Russell graciously declined. He worried that Ezrin's involvement would mark the band as "a child of Pink Floyd," though that band is but one of countless influences. "They need to establish their own identity," Watts-Russell says. Since the label had not invested a fortune in the contract, it could afford to let Garza and the Curtis brothers produce their own album.
"We've really earned each other's trust," says Ben Curtis of the subsequent recording process. "When we sent [the label] the record, it was in the sequence it's in now, and of course we're totally skeptical because the first song ["First Wave Intact"] is nine minutes long. We [were] ready to change it. But we got a call back saying, 'This is great, and that's the order, right, because we love it!' It's kind of surreal."
With the album done, and with no openings on Warners' release schedule till late spring, the Secret Machines were antsy for people to hear it. So their manager, Bill Bennett, and Robin Bechtel, vice president of the label's new media department, decided to make the CD available online months before it would be in stores, which was (and still is) almost unheard of. They began meeting with representatives from Launch, Rhapsody, Napster, and iTunes about selling the disc. Warners also allowed the band to stream the entire album from its Website.
For ten dollars at iTunes, you could purchase the complete album, a bonus track, a sampler of other new Warners bands, and a limited edition CD-R designed by the Secret Machines. Since it was made available online at the beginning of February, the Internet version of Now Here is Nowhere has sold more than 2000 copies. "We really felt like if people could buy the digital album, they would spread the word-of-mouth to bring people into record stores when it was finally released," Bechtel says.
The strategy also had an unintended but welcome side effect: It got the band noticed in publications that often ignore new, unknown groups. The Los Angeles Times, RollingStone.com, and MTV ran stories about the disc's digital availability. Then, the New York Times focused on the band in the April 11 edition of its weekly "A Night Out With" column. A week later, Entertainment Weekly ran a story in which a writer went drinking with the band; the next month, the magazine made Now Here Is Nowhere its lead record review and bestowed upon it a rave A-. It also touted the band in its annual "Must List" issue.
This is only the beginning. There are European and Japanese festivals this summer, as well as a cross-country tour, and a jaunt through Australia by year's end. The Secret Machines also want to complete around twenty songs between now and Christmas so they can release another album by next summer. Now the band enters its "watch and see" period: Will sales catch up to the press attention? Will radio stations add "Nowhere Again," the lead single from Now Here is Nowhere that they performed on Late Show with David Letterman last June 24? According to Brandon Curtis, that is not important. Not now. Not yet.
"I've always expected and demanded the best from myself and things around me, and it's never really worked out," he says. "If we're fortunate enough to sell enough records or play big enough shows that we're actually stupid rich, then maybe you can say we're successful. But right now we're still fighting. There's no time to soak in the success, because there hasn't really been any success yet as far as we're concerned."
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